"Chuck" Ahrens (72 inches, 280 pounds) muscling out a 75-pound girl on one arm. Muscle Beach, California, August, 1957. Photo courtesy of David P. Willoughby.
The Magic Circle and its Uses
by Peary Rader (1967)
Since the Magic Circle has been available to lifters there have been many questions about the best methods of using this valuable piece of equipment, and so we are going to discuss its use and benefits.
The original Magic Circle was built many years ago by James Douglass, a Utah lifter, because the heavy bar across his shoulders considerable discomfort, especially with larger poundages, and also restricted breathing during the exercise.
In 1964 this device was made available to readers of Iron Man and since then has proven the most popular piece of equipment other than the barbell. Many readers have reported greatly accelerated progress because they could work harder with more weight and with almost no discomfort. For many men, the Magic Circle became the number one piece of training equipment. It can be used for all types of squatting: full squats, quarter squats, half squats, squats on toes – and it is especially valuable for the heavy breathing shoulder shrugs. Readers have also found other uses for it when weight is needed across the shoulders.
There are certain procedures to follow in use of the Magic Circle to make it most satisfactory. A strong pair of supports are needed and these need to be the proper height for your build. For very heavy poundages you should have these supports high enough so that when you step into the ring and put the shoulder straps on you can then lift the ring clear of the supports four to six inches. Having it this high makes it easy to take the ring off the supports and then replace it again when you’re through. It also makes it possible to do quarter squats without leaving your position between the supports. These supports may be boxes or heavy sawhorses. They ought to be of sufficient size and strong enough to take a beating. Most fellows will find they can squat with much heavier poundages with the Magic Circle than they can with the bar.
Now, in order to take the proper position in the Magic Circle, we usually recommend that you step in and between the shoulder straps, squat down and lift the straps on and into proper position on the shoulders. Place the straps well up toward the neck so they won’t tend to slip down during the squats. Be sure that you have them position so the ring rides level. Some men with very tender shoulders will use a sponge rubber pad under the straps, but this is seldom necessary. The straps are soft enough that they cause no appreciable discomfort.
If you are now properly positioned under the straps, place the hands on the thighs if you have a very heavy weight, and stand erect, taking the hands off the thighs as you attain the erect position, and grasping the ring where the chain connects to the ring; or many men find it better to grasp the chain itself at that intersection of chain and ring. This is the best hand position for steadying the ring and squatting.
You are now standing erect, and with hands properly placed, you pull slightly toward you. This steadies the ring as you step forward ahead of the supports, where you can go into a full or half squat as you desire. Remember, the position of the hands is important, for the steady, slight pull toward you not only keeps the ring from swinging but helps in the squat effort.
It is possible to do a very erect squat style with the Magic Circle, or it is possible to do the cheating style where you lean far forward as you come erect. The style you choose to use will depend on our desires. If you choose to affect the thighs primarily, then you will perform the erect squat. To do this properly, some of you will want to use a shoe or boot with a raised heel, and you must make a special effort to squat straight up and down. This is a more limited type of squat in which you affect fewer muscles and will have to use less weight. Then there is what we call the medium style that is about halfway between the vertical squat and the bendover squat. This is preferred by a large majority of men and is a good all-round squat for developing the legs and lower back.
The bendover squat is more like a deadlift than a squat and as a matter of fact, is a very good back developer. We have seen some men who use this and have attained very thick erectors from it. This is especially true if the back is allowed to hump or bend. If you keep the back straight and make all the bend at the hips, then it affects the hips and backs of the thighs more. This style puts tremendous strain on the thigh biceps and gluteus muscles.
The bendover squat might be termed a cheating squat because generally you do everything possible to make the squat easier, but it is not really easier due to the fact that you add more weight. What you are doing is using more muscles. The style of squat generally preferred is often determined by what form comes most naturally for your type of physique. A man with long thigh bones and short upper body will generally lift more with the bendover style, but the man with short thigh bones and long upper body will tend to perform a more upright style of squat. Your desires in development ought to be the real determining factor in the style you use. If you wish specifically to attain more development of the big muscles just above the knee on the front of thigh, then you will do a strict vertical or upright squat regardless of your body type. If you are seeking greater development of the thigh biceps, gluteus, and lower back muscles, then the bendover is your style. If you are doing the squat just for improved metabolism (which it works very well for) and if you just want to gain weight fast, then you will use the style that permits you to use the most poundage and that is natural to your body type, for it will bring into action the most muscles.
We must not forget, too, that the deep knee bend or squat is one of the greatest aids to developing the chest cavity, especially high repetition squats, such as 20 to 25 where your breathing becomes very heavy. It is in this area that the Magic Circle is of great value, for it permits you to go to these high repetitions more comfortably. You do not have the bar cutting into the shoulders causing great pain and the arms going numb from the pressure. Your arms are hanging in the most normal position and the weight is comfortably spread over a large area of the shoulders. In addition to this you can stand quite erect and have complete freedom of the chest for deep breathing, something that is very difficult when squatting with the bar on the shoulders, for you are then forced to bend forward and sort of hump the back to keep the bar in place.
Another advantage of the Magic Circle is being able to assist yourself coming erect if you get stuck in the low position. All you have to do is place both hands against the thighs and push and you assist the thighs in coming erect. This enables you to use heavy weights without fear and thus make greater progress. Some fellows do this regularly on the majority of their reps but the is danger that you may make this more of an arm exercise if you are not careful. With high repetitions, however, one could use both the arms and the legs in coming erect and thus make it quite a whole body exercise and this could give you a terrific workout with very, very heavy poundages. It takes a bit of practice to accomplish this properly, but what a great exercise it is for improving the metabolism and gaining muscular bodyweight. This type of exercise can be performed with a Magic Circle, but next to impossible with a barbell.
Now, there is another way of using the Magic Circle and this is with a very low support. Here again, the support height will depend on your own height, but 6 to 8 inches high will usually be sufficient. This low support will not work well if you plan to do very heavy quarter squats, since you would be unable to get up the first time from this low position. The advantage of the low support is that you can, if you get stuck on the bottom, lower the ring to the supports and step out. If you wish, you could have these supports just in front of the high supports so that when you step ahead of the high supports to do your squats, you will be over the low supports for safety and more confidence in squatting.
There is one other advantage of the low supports. They allow you to practice low, dead-start squats from the bottom position, which are advantageous especially when training for increased power. The low position is where most men are weakest and they need this low position bottom-start for power development. It is safer on the knees and lower back to make low starts than it is to go into full, bottom squats with a heavy weight, starting from the top.
Usually we do not recommend extremely heavy squats that go below parallel with the tops of the thighs. What we should perhaps say is that we do not recommend going into full squats. I suppose that some people would say this is to protect the knees, but in spite of all that has been said, we have never, in almost 40 years of training men in the heavy squat, had one instance of knee injury from the squat. No one we know has had their men specialize on the squat to the extent that we have. We have, however, experienced some problems with the sacroiliac area from very low bottom squats. It is for this reason that we recommend parallel squats. They have all the advantages of the squat, with no dangers to the sacrum. Therefore we do not recommend that you hit absolute bottom. Stop before you get clear down. This also has an advantage of muscle rebound which is very beneficial to muscle growth, especially in advanced me. It places an unusual demand on the leg muscles.
We also recommend that you take 3 to 6 deep breaths between all repetitions of the squat. This not only develops the chest but will help you do more squats and it also gives time for the blood to circulate through the muscles. This pause for breathing and rest between repetitions is most important and it is much easier with the Magic Circle.
We recommend that you use 20 repetitions of the squat for the best results, although it is also possible to obtain excellent results from several sets of 10 to 12 reps. 20 repetitions will improve the metabolism much better than several sets of 10. Regardless of how many sets and reps you use, you ought to work to your maximum limit once you get broke in, for both poundage and repetitions. When you get halfway through a set you will often think you can’t make another repetition, but if you just keep fighting you will be able to make more. I know, because I have done this for years.
The use of the Magic Circle can work miracles in your body if you are willing to work hard at it. When you finish a set of all-out squats, if you have worked hard enough on it, you will be panting for breath and your legs will feel like rubber. This is a sign you have worked yourself hard enough on the squat. You should place these maximum exertion squats near the end of your program because you will not have much left after you work this hard.
If you use 20 to 25 repetitions we have not found it necessary to do more than one set. Only in cases of very advanced men would we consider more than one all-out set of 20 to 25 repetitions.
You may also find the Magic Circle has great advantages for endurance training. We have had young long distance runners use it for very high repetitions (with lighter poundages, of course) for improvement in their running. They used up to 300 continuous repetitions and found tremendous improvement.